Danielle Porter, Community Health, Madagascar, 42
I COSed over two years ago. On some days it is hard to believe how much my life has changed since then. I have traveled more, I have learned new skills, and I have even changed careers. Still, on some days, I catch myself daydreaming about my 100 Years of Solitude-esque town in Madagascar, and it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting on my friend Ranja’s straw mat in the shade of a lychee tree eating some luke-warm leftover post-lunch rice and greens.
On the hardest of days, 24 hours felt like an unreasonable amount of time for the earth to orbit the sun. It’s 7 pm, my Kindle is dying, and all of my friends are in bed. What do I do for the next 4 hours? On the best of days, time didn’t exist until you realized that another week or month had passed and you greedily wanted more. Peace Corps is so intense and all-encompassing that it takes over.
I, like many volunteers, fell into the rhythm of service relatively naturally. I would wake up with the sunrise and go line up for water at the pump. Before filling my two jerry cans, I would splash my face and rinse my legs to wash away the previous night’s dreamy residue. At my favorite coffee shack, after asking for coffee with a little sugar, I would down two small cups of coffee with enough sugar to keep an elephant wired for a few hours, and go off to the river with my friends to gossip and wash clothes before the intense afternoon heat set in. Similar things occupied my afternoons. Rinse and repeat for the next day.
Interwoven in my daily routines were aspects of service that I thought I would surely take away. These habits, after all, had been a part of my life for two years. I thought; I will definitely wear this lamba (long piece of cloth) when I leave. I’ve been living in it for the past two years. I will always make Ravitoto Coco (pounded cassava leaves with coconut and, if you’re living large, pork). Masotoa (enjoy) will always be a part of my vocabulary.
Most PCV’s want to integrate so intensely that, without knowing, they enter into these small unrecognized competitions. I’m sure that you’ve partaken in some of them; “Oh wow, you have electricity at site? Must be nice,” “I eat so much rice now,” “I wear this traditional hat like every day. I’ll definitely rock it when I go home,” “Oh wow, you took a sprinter van? You must be rich.” Amongst volunteers, little things like this are a source of pride. They are things and stories that volunteers can share to demonstrate how immersed they are in their communities.
After COS though, I found myself falling out of the routines as quickly as I had fallen into them. At first, it made me feel bad, nostalgic, and insincere. I felt like a pretender. Maybe I wasn’t as good of a volunteer as I thought if, when given the option, I actually prefer noodles to rice.
Then, the totally unexpected happened last October when my partner surprised me at dinner with two tickets to Madagascar. While he was excited to go to Diego for kite-surfing with his brother, I was euphoric about the thought of getting in an overcrowded taxi-brusse for the nauseating six-hour ride to Ranomafana. I say this without sarcasm. I was over the moon.
Returning to Ranomafana didn’t come without some anxiety. In the end, though, it was all for nothing. My trip back taught me the best of lessons. All of the feels that I felt about abandoning my routines were normal, but in the end, they were useless. Exactly zero people cared that I didn’t wear my lamba. Exactly zero f***s were given that I arrived at site in a nice taxi-brousse instead of the local beaters. No one even noticed that I couldn’t polish off three kapoakas (soup cans) of rice anymore. All of the things that had at one point struck me as a sign of belonging, importance, and service success didn’t matter at all.
When I returned, my friend Ranja remembered the first time that I went to her hometown in Central Madagascar. She remembered sitting in front of her parent’s house eating peanuts until the sunset. She told me that was the moment she knew that I cared about her, and about Ranomafana. My friend Netty told me she remembered when I made an epic, sweaty thanksgiving dinner with her and her family. It was the first time most of them had tasted cheese. She told me that her family remembers how hot it was that day, but instead of being disgusted by me they felt grateful for my effort. They remember that I very sincerely wanted to share that experience with them which made them comfortable sharing things with me. My other friend Clement told me that when he woke me up one morning at 4 am instead of 6 am to go running because he didn’t have a clock, and I schlepped out of bed to go with him anyways, he knew I was going to be his friend. The most mundane and powerful memory that I heard when I returned was when the community health workers that I had worked with told me that people remembered how, no matter what, I would share my water. In Madagascar, you can’t drink tap water anywhere. People don’t have running water at their houses, let alone potable water. Peace Corps, however, is obligated to provide water filters for its volunteers. I was the only person in Ranomafana with readily available drinking water. Everyone, friends and strangers alike, knew that they could stop by to have some water. While I remember it as the least I could do, they still remember it as kindness.
I think that Maya Angelou said it best, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is important to remember during your service. As volunteers, things rarely go as planned. Instead of worrying about if an event started on time, or if what you’re doing will make the difference that you want, think about how you are making the people around you feel. Are you showing your community love? Are you showing them respect? Are you showing them due deference for being in a new place that you know very little about? Instead of looking at quantifiable results, are you showing them that you care, that you are grateful for every iota of effort that it takes them to welcome someone new? Are you providing them support for the things that are in your scope of service, and outside?
These are the things that matter the most. I am not suggesting that you give up on your projects, or feel nihilistic about what you can do. On the contrary, do your GLOW camp, build a bridge, make a mural, provide a training program. While you do it though, don’t forget that you are a guest. No matter how integrated you feel, you’ve only just moved there. In two years, you will not be a ‘local.’ Whether your goal is educational, infrastructural, youth empowerment, or agricultural. Human connection matters the most. People will not always remember the big projects you worked on, but they will remember the day to day person that you were. They will remember the time that you spent with them doing ‘meaningless’ things, and how you embraced unexpectedness with a smile and a laugh, they will remember how you made them feel important and embraced them as a part of your world. If you do this, the rest will fall into place.